Yet again the legal press is full of stories about partners, teams and senior assistants moving firms. Gone are the days when lawyers joined one firm and had a "job for life".

In order to retain key players, the quality of life of those individuals is an increasingly important issue for firms to address.

In recent years City practices have had to contend with both accountants and US law firms poaching their key players. In order to compete with the increased salaries offered by the major US law firms, City practices have introduced a range of benefits.

These include: private health insurance; life assurance; contributory and non-contributory pension schemes; bonus schemes, either discretionary or annually, based on chargeable hours and length of service; profit related pay; performance related pay; and portfolio benefit schemes, where employees may select from a portfolio of benefits or increase the cash element of their remuneration package.

Despite these measures mob-ility has increased, with serious cost implications for firms. Their key players may take important clients with them, and often whole teams defect with a detrimental effect on income. Recruitment is expensive, not just in terms of the fees paid to recruitment agencies, but also in terms of non-recoverable time expended in processing applications, selecting recruitment agencies, undertaking interviews and inducting new recruits.

The key to a successful firm is the recruitment of the right people and the ability to retain them. So how can firms ensure that once they have recruited key players, they can reduce the likelihood of them leaving? In our experience, provided candidates are paid about the going rate, they are unlikely to move firms merely for more money. One reason frequently given for moving firms is a more balanced life.

So why has quality of life become such an important issue in retention of key players?

If we look at the statistics, they show that women now comprise over 47 per cent of the work force and 32 per cent of the solicitors' profession (with practising certificates). Women also comprise over 50 per cent of the admissions to the profession in 1996/97 and 9 per cent of the workforce are single parents.

These statistics show why there is an increased pressure on people to balance their work and family lives. Traditionally men were considered the breadwinners and women the homemakers and carers. There was little conflict between career and family. But the social and demographic changes that are taking place have increased conflict between work and home life.

Despite the changing role of women and their additional responsibilities, men have, in general, not taken on an equal share of the homemaker, carer roles. Consequently, a percentage of this mobility is women who, for one reason or another, retire, leave the profession or do not make partner.

However, both the statistics and our experience indicate that men are also more concerned about the conflict between career and family, often as a result of both parties in a relationship wishing to pursue successful careers.

How can firms balance the conflict between the career/ family and the strategic vision of the firm and the needs of its clients? The firm that succeeds will retain its key players, have a more committed workforce and therefore have a source of competitive advantage.

Clearly, to manage this balance firms will need to develop new skills for their managers and to identify certain skill sets in the people they recruit.

Research has identified three sets of competencies needed by professionals to balance their lives and by managers to help other people balance their lives (see box).

The challenge for firms is to identify these competencies when they recruit, and to provide training for both the recruits and their managers.

Those firms who succeed in this challenge should be able to successfully align the issues of career/family with their strategic objectives, and reduce the likelihood of losing their key players to their competitors.

Competency requirements for professionals

Competencies for professionals can be divided into three areas:

Values: clarifying priorities; being aware of trade-offs; and knowing when to get out of a difficult situation.

Roles and relationships: proactively building relationships; communicating needs and feelings; being creative to fulfil personal and firm needs; and developing a comfort level with ambiguity.

Performance: accepting excellence rather than perfection; not demanding perfection of oneself or others; and anticipating demands and planning effectively.